What is a "Design Engineer"?

The hybrid species in the wilds of tech

By Daniel •

Mar 4, 2024

A designer wearing a yellow jacket sitting in a moonlit forest with his Macbook Pro open.

Ladies, gentlemen, and everyone who just accidentally clicked on this link while trying to find a meme, welcome to the mysterious world of tech titles. Today, we embark on a safari into the deepest, darkest corners of the software jungle to observe a rare creature that has recently begun to make its presence known: the "Design Engineer."

Now, for those of you who thought a Design Engineer was someone who meticulously engineers the patterns on your grandma's curtains—brace yourselves. This creature is far more complex, and, dare we say, revolutionary.

What is a Design Engineer, Really?

Imagine, if you will, a unicorn. Not the kind that prances around rainbows but a mythical creature of the tech ecosystem that embodies the elusive blend of aesthetics and functionality. This unicorn, dear readers, is a designer who decided one day that merely designing wasn't enough. They wanted to conquer the mystical lands of code too.

Enter the Design Engineer: a designer who can write frontend code and contribute to a codebase. Yes, they are the Indiana Jones of the tech world, bridging the gap between the mystical arts of design and the logical realms of engineering. They're the folks who look at a beautifully designed interface and dare to say, "Yeah, I can make that work." Or at the very least, will wrestle with Codepen long enough to figure out how.

The Rise of the Design Engineer

Over the past year, this new role has started popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. Why, you ask? Because the world of software product design is damp and moist. No wait… Because the world of software design has realized something groundbreaking. It turns out, having someone who can both envision a stunning user interface and bring it to life through code is like having your cake and eating it too—except the cake is a website, and you're eating it with your eyes. Yum!

This evolution makes sense. In the old days (circa, oh, say 2010ish or so), designers would create their visionary concepts, then drop-kick them over the proverbial fence to developers, who would then try to interpret these designs into working code. It was a bit like playing a game of telephone in a noisy bar. By the time your message gets to the other side, "Please add a button here" has turned into "The bathroom is over there."

The Skillset of a Design Engineer

But what does it take to be this mythical creature? First off, a Design Engineer must have an eye for design—not just any eye, but the kind that can spot the difference between #FFFFFF and #FEFEFE. They must possess the artistic prowess to craft interfaces that are not only functional but also beautiful, like a Renaissance painting, but for the digital age.

On the flip side, they need to be fluent in the languages of the web—HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and the latest frameworks. But not just fluent. We're talking "write poetry in React" level of fluency. Mostly because engineers are very specific about their craft, and anything short of Michelangelian perfection in code is often met with a grunt of disapproval.

Why Design Engineers Are in Demand

Companies are on the hunt for these rare beings because they speed up the development process, enhance team collaboration, and ensure that the final product actually looks like the design it was supposed to be.

A lot of times the advantage of having a Design Engineer comes through by skipping the unnecessary step of drafting pictures of a User Interface (UI) before passing it off to someone else to code. Design Engineers bring their visual fundamentals to the frontend game, not only helping a company's product and brand look good, but also saving a ton of time from idea to implementation.

But becoming a Design Engineer is no easy task, and besides the obvious fact that mashing up both an engineer and a designer into one brain is a lot to ask of a brain, the few who identify as Design Engineers tend to be special exceptions. The role is mostly occupied by art kids who played a lot of video games and got too freaky with their Winamp skins back in middle school and it makes sense why – you gotta have the creative side and the engineering fearlessness to learn the ins-and-outs and complexities of code.

Examples of Winamp skins that designers have made in the past

The Future of the Design Engineer

So, what does the future hold for our Design Engineer friends? Will they become the new norm, or are they just a fleeting trend, like fidget spinners or eating Tide Pods?

The truth is, as our digital world becomes increasingly visual and interactive, the demand for professionals who can seamlessly blend design with development will only grow. The Design Engineer is not just a fad; they are the pioneers of a new frontier in tech, where the lines between design and engineering blur into one holistic role.

As we wrap up our safari through the tech jungle, let's take a moment to appreciate these majestic creatures, the Design Engineers, for their unique ability to bring together the best of both worlds. They are the proof that sometimes, you really can have it all—stunning designs that work flawlessly on the web.

So, the next time you come across a beautifully designed app that works like a charm, consider that there may have been a Design Engineer involved. They're the ones making sure our digital experiences are not just functional but also delightful to behold.

And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, you're a Design Engineer in the making. If you find yourself doodling interfaces on napkins and dreaming in CSS selectors, the call of the wild might just be for you. Or you may want to try out Onlook to learn more about how you can ship code without needing to reverse the clock to an earlier stage of life to pickup odd hobbies to expedite your development into an absolute master of the frontend.

Welcome to the jungle, we've got fun and games—and now, Design Engineers too.

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